How does Descartes use god to avoid answering certain questions directly?

3 Answers 3


Following John Cottingham, I would suggest the answer has to do with what is called the "Cartesian Circle." While Descartes is often associated with radical doubt, the reality is that his Meditations escape from doubt pretty quickly. And the key to that is God.

Meditation 1 ends roughly at the idea that he could be deceived by an evil demon and everything is scrambled.

In Meditation 2, Descartes proceeds Ex hypothesi to argue that he exists -- but this is with the caveat that there is no evil demon. Here, he speaks of what is "clear and distinct" as that which is indubitable and that he (not as a man but as a thinking thing) exists as he has this feature.

In Meditation 3, Descartes presents a cosmological argument based on the existence of the idea of God to the existence of God insofar as he maintains that the only possible origin of a perfect and infinite idea must be perfect and infinite.

The thing is that the argument in Meditation 2 hinges on a guarantee that his mind is not being scrambled. But the argument in Meditation 3 hinges on him being able to use ideas he has in his minds. The mutual need for each proof is the "Cartersian Circle" and this makes it so he's not facing radical doubt by himself but rather one could say "using god to avoid" the effects of his initial radical doubt.

  • Purely pursuing an inquiry of my own here. Tell me, didn't Descartes assert that the idea of God in itself proved God's existence? Because if that is the case, it would today be considered a fallacious and unsound argument. Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 1:10
  • That's somewhat a separate question so if you want to continue on that point, please ask it as a new question. The argument is that my possession of the idea of God proves God's existence (thus I'd say it's better categorized as cosmological since it's about the origination of that idea rather than the mere content of the idea). For more, see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/24714/… .
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 1:19
  • @SamparkSharma that is the Ontological Argument, and numerous people have proposed it; St. Anselm is the most common name associated with this argument.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 18:18
  • @virmaior Is there really a Cartesian circle? I understand the argumentation as follows: 1. The sceptical method shows the existence of me as a thinking being (res cogitans) 2. The concept of God in my mind proves the existence of God. 3. The existence of God ensures the truth of my clear and distintive conceptions. 4. My clear and distinctive conception of myself as a person with mind (res cogitans) and body (res extensa) is true. - Of course one can question nearly every single step. But is there a circle?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 6:30
  • I think there is. Descartes cannot justify the escape from doubt he takes at the end of Med 1 / beginning of Med 2 that enables him to trust his thinking without pre-emptively accepting God as guaranteeing the evil demon is not scrambling his mind (which he grants is possible in the deep skepticism of Med 1). I take the circle in its simplest form to be: (1) I need God to justify my accepting my concepts and (2) my concepts include God in such a way that justifies my accepting God's existence. / I'm not sure how one explains the jump to accepting his mind is not scrambled otherwise.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 7:04

Before Meditation 4 he has already determined that God exists and that he is perfect.

In Meditation 4 he establishes that it is impossible that God is unfaithful to him, because God is perfect and being unfaithful is not perfect. Furthermore, he establishes that he has the ability to think, and that he has necessarily got the ability from God. Because God is perfect and thus faithful, he has not received the ability to think to mislead himself, as long as he uses the ability in the right way. Later in the Meditation, he tries to understand why he can make errors, and he concludes that it is because he has not only knowledge, but also the power of choice.

  • 1
    "he has not received the ability to wander" seems to be either poor English or a misreading. Meditation 4 largely is about his ability to err despite being created perfect (with the faculty of will and the faculty of understanding)
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 9:41
  • @virmaior I am referring to this: Deinde experior quandam in me esse judicandi facultatem, quam certe, ut & reliqua omnia quae in me [54] sunt, a Deo accepi; cùmque ille nolit me fallere, talem profecto non dedit, ut, dum eâ recte utor, possim unquam errare.
    – wythagoras
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 17:54
  • @virmaior I updated the answer.
    – wythagoras
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 18:05

Descartes answer the question of the OP at the end of his 5th meditation (V.16):

And so I very clearly recognise that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends alone on the knowledge of the true God, in so much that, before I knew Him, I could not have a perfect knowledge of any other thing. And now that I know Him I have the means of acquiring a perfect knowledge of an infinitude of things, not only of those which relate to God Himself and other intellectual matters, but also of those which pertain to corporeal nature in so far as it is the object of pure mathematics.

Before, Descartes had defined God - in accordance with the Scholastic tradition, the dominant philosophy and theology of his time (III.22):

By the name God I understand a substance that is infinite, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if anything else does exist, have been created.

And in III.36 Descartes terminates his proof of the existence of God

[...] but we must of necessity conclude from the fact alone that I exist, or that the idea of a Being supremely perfect, i.e. that is the idea of God, is in me, that the proof of God's existence is grounded on the highest evidence.

Having obtained this result, Descartes in Meditation 5 draws his conclusions from the existence of God. Primarily, the existence of God ensures Descartes' truth-criterion and consequently justifies the whole epistemology of Descartes (V.15):

[I] have inferred that what I perceive clearly and distinctly cannot fail to be true.

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